Words By Steve Lewis
Even if you’re a cold-water diver, there’s a strong case to be made for doing your next advanced diver training in warm water (read tropical or sub-tropical temperatures).
Let me explain.
When we think about what we expect to get out of technical
diving classes, it’s obvious that specific goals differ according to what the program is supposed to achieve. Some of the differences might be slight, but there are differences all the same.
For example, the “deliverables” for folks taking a Cave One program are not the same as those for a course teaching deep trimix wreck-diving; different environments, different kit, not the same specifics or outlook. However, from the instructor’s perspective there is one shared value for all technical-diver training, regardless of the certification level, and that’s to develop in students “a noticeable change in behaviour”.
That’s a fancy way of saying the instructor’s customers — you, me, your dive buddy, your auntie Nelly — should go away having learned something. But in effect, and in practical terms, the intention goes way deeper than that. In a perfect world — and diving is pretty close to a perfect world — that means deep enough to develop good habits.
By this time in the evolution of technical diver training, we probably all understand that there is more to developing a change in someone’s behaviour than showing them a video, asking if they have any questions when it’s over, and hustling them through the required practical work as quickly as the agency standards will allow (a.k.a. “we can certify you as an XYZ diver in one weekend” syndrome. If no phases of your personal diver development resemble this, you’re fortunate, indeed.)
We all know that changing behaviour takes time.
With technical diving — any diving, to be honest — changes start with becoming familiar with any specific physical and mental skills the program requires — line management, complex navigation techniques, and advanced gas planning in a cave; gas blending, ascent planning, and environmental considerations on a trimix wreck dive. Graduating from a technical diving program requires all of those and more, PLUS practicing every required in-water skill in a controlled environment under the watchful and critical eye of an instructor. None of this can be rushed.
Regardless of how well-prepared you or I might be when we turn up for a class, for a successful and fruitful all-round experience, there has to be time in the schedule for us to make mistakes, discuss them with our cohorts and our instructor, correct them, develop muscle memory with unfamiliar kit, and push the boundaries of our respective comfort-zones…safely. Each one of us learns differently. There is no magic one-size-fits-all formula.
The only thing that does work for everyone is time, and paramount in the whole learning/teaching behaviour-changing equation is time actually in the water. And this is where that “it’s better in warm water” concept comes into its own.
If teaching technical programs for three decades has taught me anything, it’s that doing foundation work in warmer water pays huge dividends for the student — even one who’s regularly diving in cold water such as Canada’s Great Lakes (my home turf).
Working in warm water, there’s no rush to get sessions wrapped up fast to get out of the water and warmed up. A couple of two-hour dives doing and redoing skills are not a challenge in warmer water. Logging 600 minutes of “wet time” in a week-long program is achievable in water 68°F (20°C) or more, and preferable to course minimums sometimes as short as 100 or 120 minutes, which is more the norm in cold water. This is especially productive in CCR programs but is a benefit at every level.
Doubling, tripling, or quadrupling course minimums opens up a whole suite of options. There’s time to focus on nuances; there’s time to practice until “a noticeable change in behaviour” kicks in; and in warm water, most everyone has a higher level of energy and enthusiasm on day three onward compared to multiple dive/multiple day diving in frigid conditions. Cold conditions can bring out the whiner in even the most Zen-like of individuals.
Okay, the argument that students should be trained in conditions similar to those they dive in is a valid one…as far as it goes. But let’s look at a real-world example: a diver from the English Midlands — actively diving in the British Isles — learning to dive a rebreather.
First of all, a rebreather class has some prerequisites…a bunch of logged dives. In this example, the bulk of those dives will have been logged in UK water. He or she therefore is already an experienced cold-water diver. There’s really not much about rebreather diving that pertains directly to that environment that cannot be discussed and practiced anywhere — certainly nothing specific in the course standards.
If diving with dry gloves rather than bare hands, using bigger equipment clips, and wearing more robust thermal protection make a cold-water orientation dive necessary, so be it. Arrange that as a post-class requirement. However, getting a firm grasp of how to prepare, assemble, pre-dive check, and operate the CCR unit in normal operations and in various simulated “emergencies” is the basis for the course. None of that primacy of information and acumen and mental focus has anything to do with how to dive in cold water. That’s a sidebar consideration.
Any importance of learning in a specific environment such as cold water or frigid murk fades in comparison with the importance of spending several hours submerged and “playing” with the unit in conditions that promote a comfortable and safe learning environment.
And so in general terms, in my opinion, there is a huge advantage doing foundation training in warm water whenever possible. Obviously not for an ice-diving class, but most other programs: yes, it can be done.
The fact is that turning a conscious change (the goal of diver training) into an unconscious habit (what we’d all like to develop when it comes to new skills and personal safety) takes longer than the length of any diver-training program.
How much time is debatable, and varies depending on whom you ask. However, it seems sensible that every minute of a dive class should be used more effectively than looking for a place to get the blood flowing once again in your fingers and face, and finding the body parts that have dropped off and become stuck in your drysuit boots.
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